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Cultural Dialogue or Cultural Schism?
Two weeks ago, I was invited to sit in on one of the debates that took place in London during the General Synod of the Church of England...

21 November   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... The draft motion on the floor of the house dealt with the war in Afghanistan as well as with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the three-hour debate, one delegate after another stood up and emphasised the need to learn much more about Islam and to open bridges of communication with the followers of this fast-growing monotheistic faith. In fact, the most rousing applause was reserved for Bishop Nazeer Ali of Rochester who leant on his own Pakistani origins to provide a bird’s eye view of the contemporary make-up of Islam.

At one stage of the debate, though, I felt quite rueful that it had taken the deaths of well over 5000 men and women of different national, ethnic or religious backgrounds for the Western world to be reminded about its woeful ignorance of Islam! Yet now, following the horrific acts of terror in the USA, newspapers, magazines and radio or television channels cannot seem to get enough of all sorts of pointers on Islam - its tenets, internal struggles, contradictions, visions and shortcomings, its similarities and deep differences with Christianity and the Western world. Although I must admit that some of what I read gives me hope, others leave me decidedly uneasy about what lies ahead.

Just consider how things stand today! Seven of the fifteen lead books on the New York Times paperback bestseller list since 11 September 2001 are devoted to Islam. The Holy Koran has become a bestseller. The whole world - but primarily the Western world - seems to have been converted into a classroom as it tries to make sense of the tragic events of that ill-fated day. Was it the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that caused this outrage? Was it perchance a struggle over future oil supplies and pipelines? Did countries like Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia contribute to this recoil? Or was it more a lack of historical and cultural engagement between Islam and the West?

As the readers of my articles already know, I am an Armenian Christian from Jerusalem. Having grown up in a Middle Eastern Palestinian culture that has also been predominantly Muslim in nature, I have managed to forge many long-lasting friendships with Muslims - as well as Jews and Christians. But I have also lived in Europe most of my adult life. Therefore, and for the purposes of this article, I am going to assume the mantle of a Westerner looking in on the ostensible ‘clash of civilisations’ and explore this - purportedly - arcane world. In this way, I might perhaps ask certain questions - and develop certain themes - that would otherwise remain locked up in my own head!

The first question I would ask is not necessarily what we have learnt about Islam as a faith or a way of life! Rather, what matters more to me is what we have actually learnt about ourselves? We in the West have become so convinced of our own ‘values’ that we tend to regard attitudes that differ in some fundamental respects from our own as being invalid. We have come to accept, prima facie, that our way of life is the universal standard and our references the only credible ones. We cannot imagine anyone not aspiring for them. Therefore, in our minds, people who beg to differ from us in a radical way either do not matter, or their way of thinking is so improper that we have no way of making allowances for their presence. For all practical purposes, the ‘others’ are not there - they do not count! Indeed, over the past several weeks, I have heard Muslim intellectuals use the word ‘humiliation’ to describe how vast numbers of Muslims feel in the West. Humiliation is a deeply cultural construct that cuts far deeper than economic or political terms such as ‘impoverished’ or ‘disenfranchised’. To feel humiliated is to be denied consideration or respect.

But can such negative realities born in violence be transformed into opportunities that are steeped in conviviality, common understanding and respect? Instead of holding on to every utterance of those extremists, analysing their every pronouncement or fatwa, can we focus instead on the centre of gravity in the Muslim world and call for a cultural dialogue between Islam and the West? Surely, we can learn something from a great culture that has had a powerful impact on the world for nearly 1500 years - and in which one in every five human beings finds meaning? For long now, we have been investing large sums of energy and money into military and political responses to terrorism. Is it not perhaps time to put as much attention and effort on finding mechanisms to engage each other in the cultural context too? For if we fail in this endeavour, there is little hope of resolving the cultural divide that separates us - short of escalating violence and a protracted struggle.

Let me examine a few bare facts! Muslims today make up a majority in 52 countries, and a sizeable minority in many others. There are 6 million Muslims living in the United States, 2million in the United Kingdom,3 . 2million in Germany and 5 million in France. Moreover, Islam is the fastest growing religion. Demographers predict that one out of every four human beings will be Muslim in the year2025 . If demographics mean power, then the world is tilting toward a Muslim century. We need to initiate a cultural dialogue with Islam now, rather than wait until the point of hard returns.

Let me also cite just two ticking cultural time bombs. In the USA and Western Europe, the Muslim populations are by and large young, often jobless, and at times the subject of discrimination. Scores of Muslim youth have been left behind by globalisation. In their anxious quest for identity, purpose, hope and dignity, many of them are being won over to the fundamentalist call for a jihad that strives to recapture the golden age of Islam and to re-conquer the world for God. This is tantamount to a kind of Islamic view of globalisation.

In addition, and for most of us Christians / Westerners (non-interchangeable terms) who have long accepted the notion of giving private loyalty to our faith and public loyalty to our government, the idea that substantial numbers of Muslims living among us do not share our conviction is worrisome. A New York Times reporter recently interviewed young Muslim students in the USA and was surprised to learn that some did not think of themselves as Americans, but rather as Muslims living in America. Their bonds are extra-territorial and based on the revival of the Islamic idea of umma - a term which signifies the universal Islamic community. Many young Muslims in Europe and the USA since 11 September 2001 averred that they would not fight against their fellow Muslims in Afghanistan if called upon to do so by their own governments. They consider the nation-state as a colonial construct imposed on the Middle East and the rest of the world. Add to this the fact that the Muslim Diasporas are spreading into virtually every country, and we might just begin to understand the risks we undertake by perpetuating a global ghetto-isation of Islam in ‘our’ cultural midst.

To my mind, there are numerous questions awaiting answers. For example, how do Muslims - who belong to different confessions, schools and orientations in different parts of the world - feel about those values like civil liberties, democratic participation and gender equality that the West holds dear? Would most Muslims accept living in a pluralistic world, with respect for different faiths, creeds and ways of life? Why is the West so pre-occupied with material values? These three sample questions are by no means exhaustive! They are just random ones that come to the fore when I think about a dialogue between Islamic and post-Christian Western humanist cultures. Indeed, such cultural components (which include religion, albeit not exclusively) need to be put in perspective if we are ever to achieve any progress in the foreseeable future.

Over the past few weeks, politicians, military commanders and journalists have been talking with rotating frequency about the ‘Great Game’. This is a reference to the historical wars waged in Afghanistan ever since the conquest of this vast land by Alexander the Great. But it also culminates in the geopolitical intrigues and petroliferous interests being played out between Islam and the West in the current Afghan war. What we need today is not a great game, but the start-up of a ‘Great Discourse’ between Islam and the West so that we can begin to figure out how to accommodate each other and how to respect one another’s values without impinging upon our respective beliefs.

Mind you, we do not need to feel comfortable with the questions we might expect of our interlocutors. Nor do we have to agree with many of the answers we receive from Muslim scholars - just as they could with ours too! After all, the aim of any dialogical exercise is not to avert differences in values or perceptions - some of which are historical, others theosophical and some even instinctual and gut-driven within any society. But personal experience has taught me that dialogue is not an exercise conducted between parties who have decided in advance on the outcome of their talks. The issue is neither one of diplomacy or complacency, nor one of nicety or sensitivity. Rather, it is one of urgent necessity for the healthy survival of future generations.

And until we do engage in an exercise that draws us back from the edge of a cultural schism, our cosmic world will remain hostage to volatile, distrustful, wary, precarious and terror-fed influences.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   21 November


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